After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Tuscany’s medieval jewel Siena, once again erupted in festivity and ritual pandemonium to the delight of tens of thousands of international spectators.
Il Palio di Siena, a four-day cultural sporting extravaganza, culminates in the world’s most thrilling horse race. Lasting a mere 75-90 seconds, it is the climax of a fiercely competitive all-consuming year-round rivalry between the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena. In Siena, your contrada is a part of your DNA. It courses through your veins. There’s a saying in Siena: you first belong to your contrada, then to Siena and then to Italy. You are baptized into it, you eat, sleep and breathe it. And, it’s best not to marry outside of it! Each contrada comes complete with its own symbol (e.g., Eagle, Giraffe, Unicorn, Turtle, Dragon), motto, church, traditions, and flag.
Leading up to the race, sweating crowds mob the Piazza del Campo as processions of the Contrade bedecked in armor and silk transform the city into a spectacle right out of the Cinquecento. Flag bearers perform extravagant displays of waving, throwing and twirling to the sound of military drums and trumpets.
The race begins as the sun drops low. The anticipation and tension is palpable. Consisting of three laps around the one-third of a mile track that outlines the Piazza del Campo, the course is treacherous and steep, with tight corners that the jockeys must navigate at full speed bareback. The thunderous sound of hooves is barely audible over the roar of the crowd. Like Garfunkel arriving without Simon, a horse can triumph without a rider (and this happens as spills come hard, fast and heavy). The contrade pay their jockeys handsomely to ride for them, yet these jockeys are hired guns from outside Siena . . . and fundamentally unfaithful. Everyone is a potential double agent. Secret negotiations abound.
Last July’s winner was Giraffe; they wept with happiness and celebrated as is tradition by sucking on pacifiers or drinking cheap wine from baby bottles to symbolize rebirth. Meals commenced at huge tables set up in the streets. The festivities ran all night. The prize, not the race, is technically the palio — a large painted banner specially designed for each year’s races (there are two, one July 2nd and the other August 16th) by different artists. Contrade proudly display their winning palio banners in their museums with the real prize being a year’s worth of bragging rights!
These incredible images of the July 2019 Palio are courtesy of Biordi Art Imports of San Francisco. Biordi’s exclusive line of Palio Contrade dinnerware is hand-painted by a father and his two daughters living in Siena who carry on their family’s artisanal tradition. Browse Biordi’s exclusive line of Contrade Dinnerware here. Receive a 20% discount using the Promo Code Contrade10, good thru 8/16/20. I LOVE this line and collect dessert plates and espresso cups & saucers which are fun to mix and match.
Nothing quite surpasses the grandeur of the Eternal City this time of year and it is difficult to recall a single person who has had a greater influence on the look and life of a city than Baroque genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini has had on Rome.
Sculptor, urban planner, architect, master of stagecraft and gesture, Bernini engenders awe in the beholder with his exuberant style.
Connecting the Eternal City to Vatican City is the Pont Sant’ Angelo, one of the most serenely beautiful bridges in the world. Bernini designed it as a “living” Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) to help pilgrims emotionally experience in the suffering of Jesus.
Bernini was able to transcend his preferred medium of marble to achieve visual and emotive effects never before imagined. A visit to the Borghese Gallery for me is always a “must” when in Rome. The astonishing Apollo and Daphne, Rape of Proserpina, and his David were all completed before he was 25 years old!
From 1667 on, pilgrims to St. Peter’s arrive at the grand elliptical piazza with its two burbling fountains and an Egyptian obelisk standing at its center and at the far end the façade of monumental Basilica. The piazza itself is encircled by two colossal Doric colonnades four columns deep with a total of 140 statues of saints lining it’s rooftop. This momentous piece of urban planning and architecture was the product of Bernini’s imagination; figuratively speaking he designed his colonnade to embrace pilgrims with in his words, “the maternal arms of mother church”